Cashiers and tellers today have an easy time handling cash. That cash
comes in the form of five different U.S. coins or six denominations of
Federal Reserve notes. Cashiers 160 years ago, however, had an
infinitely tougher job.
Thirteen different American federal coins, from the copper half cent
through the gold double eagle, were in circulation, and American coins
were just the beginning. Coins from other nations were apt to be
spent, and some, like the Spanish silver dollar, enjoyed legal tender status.
No Federal Reserve notes existed in 1855, but a bewildering variety
of bills in several denominations landed on counters, issued by
literally hundreds of banks, from locations in every state, some notes
passing at par, others discounted, and many completely worthless.
How could a cashier know which coins and bills were authentic and
valuable, and which were counterfeit and valueless?
The answer was a cambist, a book that illustrated genuine coins or
notes and alerted readers to known counterfeits so cashiers and
tellers could compare the payment offered to the real thing.
Cambists are obsolete in our standardized world, but in the mid-19th
century, they were essential to every merchant and bank, and several
publishers printed these helpful guides for money-handlers.
Typical of the genre were cambists by J. Thompson, banker and
broker, of #2 Wall Street, in New York City. Thompson’s Bank Note
and Commercial Reporter was published weekly and covered the
paper money scene.
His supplementary annual publication, The Coin Chart Manual focused
on depictions of genuine coins for cashiers to compare.
Congress had finally removed legal tender status from foreign coins
by the Coinage Act of 1857, but in nearly every community, a profusion
of coins from other nations remained in active circulation. Most were
from Europe, but some came from unexpected sources, such as Haiti and
Turkey. The Coin Chart Manual helpfully illustrated and valued them.
The manual’s section illustrating U.S. coins offered some surprises.
The gold coin page illustrated 1790s federal eagles and half eagles;
Bechtler and Reid private gold; and California pieces, including the
$50 octagonal “slugs” that the manual called “quintuple eagles.”
Cambists were printed by the thousands, but since they quickly
became obsolete, most were discarded when a new issue was published.
Collecting complete sets of publications like Thompson’s is therefore
virtually impossible; every survivor is desirable.
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